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Why contempt case against Prashant Bhushan in Supreme Court could set a bad precedent

In episode 529 of ThePrint's Cut The Clutter, Shekhar Gupta says the top court’s capital is its own stature and it’s for the court to decide how fragile that stature is.

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New Delhi: The contempt case initiated against advocate Prashant Bhushan could set a “bad precedent”, said ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta in episode 529 of Cut The Clutter.

Gupta was speaking in context of the contempt notice issued to Bhushan by the Supreme Court Wednesday for two of his tweets on Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde as well as former CJIs. The court has asked Bhushan to show cause as to why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against him.

In one of his tweets on 27 June, Bhushan had written about the “role of the Supreme Court” in the “destruction” of democracy during the last six years, and had also mentioned the “role of the last 4 CJIs” in it.

In another tweet on 29 June, Bhushan had commented on Bobde astride a Harley Davidson bike. He had questioned the CJI for riding a bike without a helmet and a face mask while “he keeps the SC in lockdown mode”.

Gupta spoke about instances where the apex court has taken a “large-hearted and broad shouldered view” in such cases and said that for it to “now get so touchy, doesn’t make sense”.

“Institutions run on their capital. Politicians run on political capital. Professions run on professional capital. Institutions run on institutional capital. So the Supreme Court’s capital is its own stature. It’s for the court to decide how fragile that stature is,” he said.  

“If the stature is going to be hit by a couple of nasty tweets, I think this will be a big mistake and the court will end up squandering a lot of that same quality, in its institutional capital,” he added.

Civil and criminal contempt

Gupta spoke about defamation laws and the contempt laws. He agreed that criminal defamation needs to go while civil defamation laws need to be strengthened. 

“It (criminal defamation) has no place in the law book of a civilised democracy,” he said.

As for contempt, he explained that in any such case, the accused are “at the mercy of the judges who have hauled you in for suspected or alleged contempt”.

The law of contempt in India includes civil and criminal contempt. According to Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, civil contempt means “wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court”.

Section 2(c) says criminal contempt includes publication of anything that “(i) scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or (ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or (iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner”.

According to the law, publication includes written or spoken words, signs or visible representations.

Also read: How ‘cancel culture’ has turned liberals against each other and is rocking newsrooms

The Spycatcher case

Explaining the law on the issue, Gupta referred to the aftermath of the Spycatcher case adjudicated by the House of Lords in 1987. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer was written by Peter Wright, who worked for Britain’s MI5 intelligence service from 1955 to 1976.

While initially injunctions were issued against the book, co-authored by Paul Greengrass, these were reversed after the Observer Media Group published excerpts from the book. But the court held it liable for the profits it made through the publication. 

After this judgment, British newspaper Daily Mirror published an upside-down picture of three law lords with the caption, “You Old Fools”. However, British judge Lord Sydney Templeman refused to initiate contempt proceedings and said he was indeed old and whether he was a fool was a matter of perception, though he personally thought he was not one. 

Referring to this case, Gupta said that British judges take a “very liberal view” of the contempt law. 

When Indian SC was as liberal as British courts

Gupta also spoke about two contempt cases that he has been involved with as an editor. 

One of these cases involved one of the reporters at The Indian Express, Chanchal Manohar Singh, in 1996. The reporter, Gupta said, mistook a petition to be a court order.

The petition had demanded that all those who appeared for competitive exams, board exams etc, should get access to photocopies of their answer and marking sheets as a right. But before the judgment in the case could be pronounced, Singh wrote an article mistaking the petition for the judgment, and saying the court had allowed this to happen.

Due to the mistake and the consequent publication, the court had to dismantle the bench, saying the proceedings had been vitiated. The high court then initiated contempt proceedings against Singh, along with Gupta, who was The Indian Express editor at the time, and proprietor Viveck Goenka. 

Gupta recounted how the judges were “very angry” and treated them “quite rudely” during the hearings on the contempt proceedings. 

The court finally accepted the apologies by Gupta and Goenka, but imposed a three-month sentence, along with a Rs 2,000 fine on Singh. This, Gupta said, was because the judges thought there was “some mischief” on Singh’s part. 

The Supreme Court, however, set aside the punishment, saying that “this is a case in which a harsh view was not called for”. It noted that Singh had repeatedly apologised for the mistake and The Indian Express had also printed apologies acknowledging this. 

It then let him off with a warning, but directed Rs 2,000 fine to be deposited with the Legal Services Committee.

“This tells you that the Supreme Court of India has been as liberal with criticism, with the contempt law in public debate, as I would say, the British courts or Lord Templeman,” he said.

Watch the full episode of Cut The Clutter here.

Also read: Indira’s bank nationalisation move, why Modi hasn’t reversed it, and the first bank scandal


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  1. There is one word for these kinds of people.- anti-establishments. Whatever, yes whatever the institution does and it is against the wishes of these people, they will cry hoarse. So far so good. But they start imputing motives day in and day out. The court has to decide one way or the other. If they don’t concur with one viewpoint, so be with it. I feel there should be exemplary punishment. It is not to stifle dissent but to maintain the dignity of the institution…..

  2. Some died body eaters and his sympathysers people think that they above the law…..these antinational and so called durbudhijivi must be punished….

  3. If this bike was shown placed over the CJI, then possibly could this bike or its owner be charged for the contempt of the supreme court of India?

  4. The initiation of contempt proceedings by the Supreme Court, suo motu, against lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan for his tweets, is off-key and jarring, not least because of its timing. At a time when matters affecting citizens’ lives and livelihoods vie for its attention, when the
    Pandemic has set off social and economic distress at an unprecedented scale and also many cases are in the court challenging abrogation of sec 35A and article 370, two tweets have riled Their Lordships. For the court, in this moment, to invoke its contempt jurisdiction with alacrity against criticism of it is disappointing, and disturbing. Contempt case against Prashant Bhushan shrinks the space Supreme Court has itself created — and hurts the court. They need to look in the mirror time to time if their action meets the requirements of the power vested in them – especially after a criticism

  5. So you all will decide what should be punished and not, as if you a know better than everybody else in the country.
    What if a person abuses you daily in your office ? Will you just smile and let it go saying your position is very high and you should not be bothered ? Sir, you will create bad precedents allowing anybody and everybody will abuse and slander each other, which does not help a civil society. This person has been a habitual offender and his behaviour is encouraging others to do similarly. He should have been punished long back.

  6. I think the writer’ views are aptly reviewed in the above comments.However, the journalist frend, despite all his expertise and experience seems to be not aware of the fact that politician is not an institution and has no comparison with an institution much less, with the SC. Need not to mention that the standing of an institution is assessed from its integrity and not by the fragility.

  7. Sir ,Mr Gupta you r seeing only one side of it because here you r prejudiced by the name of accused had it been unknown face from legal fertinity you would have given opposite opinion that nobody should be allowed to get away I think you wake up

  8. But it is the daily routine of Mr.Bhushan to critisize the system may be for publicity. He is thinking the government, the Judiciary should act according to his wishes else he will adversly comment. He thinks he is the only perfect man in this country.

    • Survival of Democracy and the various Institutions associated with it stands some chance of survival only because there are people like Prashant Bhushan courageously fighting for the common man without fear or favour. But there are also people like you who take pride in supporting present regime, despite tremendous damage it has done to country and its people. Courts are seen favouring executive decisions however they are damaging and inhuman they might be. The recent plight of Lakhs of Migrant Labourers and inhuman situation of over 80 Lakhs People in Kashmir Valley even after laps of about one year AND the approach of Supreme Courts could be few cases for reference.

  9. Precedent?
    Is there a precedent when a prominent lawyer from a family of lawyers (nepotism? that is another story for another day) says that (paraphrasing) the Judicial System in India has destroyed democracy – without really substantiating the statements , importantly here, before making this very damaging statement?
    When statements are made which are seemingly prejudiced, it may boomerang!
    There are Indians in this democracy who feel that Mr. Prashant Bhushan has repeatedly made irresponsible statements in the past.
    So, there you are.
    Now, you decide whether Media should sit in judgement!

  10. Fine edit in IE today. Shri Prashant Bhushan is a man of integrity, has a good record of public service. There have been instances that have disturbed the public, shaken its faith in the institution. The manner in which allegations of sexual misconduct against Shri R Gogoi, MP, when he was CJI were disposed of was not the SC’s finest hour. It would be tedious to list others. Ordinary citizens are not well versed with the law, consider themselves blessed if they do not come into contact with the judicial system. Shri Arun Shourie has recounted his experiences. However, each Indian understands instinctively the purity of a piece of gold.

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